Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
A homeless man was found dead in a jail cell in Manchester, New Hampshire. What killed him? The criminalization of poverty.
Jeffrey Pendleton was found dead in a jail cell in Manchester, New Hampshire, on March 13. His death can be chalked up to a number of issues: the paradox of overbearing yet negligent policing, America’s addiction to criminalizing the poor and homeless, the uninhabitable conditions of local jails, and how cities make bank from those paradoxes, bigotries and conditions. His death also illuminates how the ridiculously paltry wages inside the food-service sector leave its workers vulnerable to the predatory nature of these factors.
It would be great if we could say that these issues represent the worst of how cities run; instead, we know that they are embedded in the essential functions of the civic ecosystem. People like Pendleton are not residents in these systems, they are the victims of it.
Pendleton was arrested on March 8 for a simple marijuana possession charge and was placed the next day in Manchester’s Valley Street Jail. It’s a facility notorious for having paid out nearly $1 million in court settlements between 2008 and 2013 for its poor treatment of inmates. Pendleton ended up there because he was unable to pay $100 for bail. Five days later, he was found dead in his cell. Local coroners have ruled out physical trauma as a cause of death. Pendleton’s family says that medical examiners in Arkansas, where he lived before coming to New Hampshire, have found possible evidence of physical harm.
What is clear is that Pendleton had suffered economic harm and trauma, given that he had been homeless since 2013. He worked at a Burger King in Nashua, about 20 miles south of Manchester, where a co-worker said he probably made $8.50 an hour at most. He previously worked at a McDonald’s and a car equipment shop.
$8.50 an hour is just above the federal minimum wage, and is well below what it costs to rent even a studio apartment in Hillsborough County, New Hampshire. It certainly didn’t leave him with enough cash to make his bail. Which is why his friends, co-workers, and labor organizers marched in Manchester Friday to the jail where Pendleton was found dead. The rally was staged, in part, to force jail officials to resolve questions around the circumstances of Pendleton’s death. It was also intended to continue the “Fight for $15” campaign to raise hourly wages, which Pendleton helped lead when he was alive.
During a February 6 strike that he participated in outside of the Burger King, “He was probably the happiest person out there and more vocal probably than anyone else out there,” his former co-worker Andy Fontaine tells CityLab.
New Hampshire has no state-set minimum wage, so it abides by the federal government’s woefully low $7.25 per hour rate. State legislators killed bills last month that would have established state-issued minimum wages—livable wages. It can’t be ignored that Pendleton would probably still be alive if he made enough money to afford his bail. The federal government has recently come to accept that that the criminal justice system’s policies around bail and court fines are exacerbating the nation’s poverty and incarceration crises.
“When bail is set unreasonably high, people are behind bars only because they are poor,” said U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch at a White House convening last December. “Not because they’re a danger or a flight risk; only because they are poor.”
After dressing down Ferguson, Missouri, for the city’s reliance on fining low-income residents into jail and to death, the U.S. Justice Department realized that Ferguson was no anomaly. Many cities and their court systems have been imposing exorbitant fines and fees on people who’ve been arrested for the pettiest of crimes, like jaywalking. Lynch said at the White House in December that it has become “painfully clear” that “in so many instances, an individual’s access to justice has become predicated on their ability to literally pay for it.”
This point is made more disturbing by the fact that cities are increasingly using criminal justice debt—court fines and fees—to service municipal debt, with low-wage individuals bearing the brunt of these economic burdens. A report from the White House’s “Council of Economic Advisors on Fees, Fines, and Bail” points out the ways this has built up over time:
- In 1986, 12 percent of those incarcerated nationally were also fined, while in 2004 this number had increased to 37 percent.
- In Rhode Island in 2008, 18 percent of all incarceration commitments were for criminal-justice debt, and over two-thirds of individuals jailed for debt were first time offenders.
- In Huron County, Ohio, in 2012, failure to pay fines and fees accounted for 20 percent of all jail bookings.
The White House council found that policies that allow local governments to raise revenue through criminal-justice fees and fines are often inefficient and ineffective. Many of them do not function well enough to regularly collect on these debts. Others that lack the bandwidth for debt collection end up contracting with private companies, who then increase the outstanding balances. From the report:
The inefficiency of court debt collection is exacerbated by the high cost of imprisoning people who cannot pay these debts.When jurisdictions jail offenders for failure to pay, the cost of fee collection increases more; in Rhode Island in 2008, 2,446 individuals were incarcerated for unpaid debts at an average cost of $505 per commitment, and in 13 percent of cases the cost of incarceration alone exceeded the debt assessed. These direct incarceration costs do not include other direct costs of collecting fees or the humanitarian and equity concerns of imprisoning those unable to pay criminal justice debts.
To rectify this, the U.S. Justice Department recently sent out “Dear Colleague” letters to local courts across the country providing guidelines on how to administer fees and fines in ways that people are capable of paying. The federal agency hit “send” perhaps a day too late, however: They went out on March 14, one day after Pendleton’s death. The Hillsborough County courts could’ve benefitted from this part of the letter:
Courts must not employ bail or bond practices that cause indigent defendants to remain incarcerated solely because they cannot afford to pay for their release.
When indigent defendants are arrested for failure to make payments they cannot afford, they can be subjected to another independent violation of their rights: prolonged detention due to unlawful bail or bond practices. Bail that is set without regard to defendants’ financial capacity can result in the incarceration of individuals not because they pose a threat to public safety or a flight risk, but rather because they cannot afford the assigned bail amount.
As unforgivable as it is that Pendleton’s death is tied in part to his inability to pay his court debts, it’s also worth arguing that he shouldn’t have been in jail to begin with. He was arrested for having a small amount of weed on him at a time when cities are increasingly opting to let people off from such charges with a small fine. Just last month, New Hampshire’s legislature killed a bill that would have legalized marijuana and taxed its sales by $15 per ounce.
Police may have also targeted Pendleton due to this nation’s long legacy of criminalizing vagrancy, especially in the frosty, northern tips of New England, as Henry David Thoreau often lamented. Pendleton had already been on the cops’ radar due to prior arrests for panhandling in the nearby town of Hudson. The ACLU of New Hampshire sued the Hudson police in 2014, accusing them of harassing Pendleton because of his housing status. As explained in the complaint:
The Hudson police department has allowed an unconstitutional custom, practice, and/or policy to develop in which it detains, harasses, threatens, trespasses, disperses, and charges panhandlers like Mr. Pendleton in violation of the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. This is evidenced by the actions of at least twelve (12) Hudson police officers on at least eighteen (18) separate incidents from March 2011 to March 2014 thirteen (13) of which took place from September 2013 onward.
The Hudson police department engages in this disturbing practice in two ways, each of which Mr. Pendleton has experienced firsthand. First, Hudson police officers inform peaceful panhandlers that panhandling is illegal in all of Hudson, including on sidewalks and in other public places. However, there is no state or municipal law that makes panhandling illegal. The message from the Town is loud and clear: Peaceful panhandling by the poor and homeless is unwelcome in Hudson, and all panhandlers should go back over the bridge spanning the Merrimack River to the City of Nashua.
Pendleton’s case was settled last year for roughly $37,000, most of which reportedly went to lawyers. It was part of a larger campaign to stop police harassment of the homeless across New Hampshire, which the ACLU’s state chapter filed a federal lawsuit over in January.
Cities like these resent the optics of poverty, especially when it appears in public spaces as a black man asking for help. Yet they are uninterested in lifting wages to eliminate poverty. Pendleton tried to confront these bigotries and inequities and ended up paying for it with his life.